Set in some unspecified time period in which people rarely die of illness, only of old age, such “unnatural” deaths are televised and have become a spectacle for an audience unused to such suffering. The book has been seen as a reaction to the intrusiveness of television and nascent reality TV programming; yet, in the end, it is predominantly a book about people and relationships in a particular near-future milieu.
Indeed, Katherine Mortenhoe doesn’t even appear on television until half way through the book; and then it becomes clear that this isn’t some modern, intense, immersive 24-hour reality show, but more in the nature of an hour or half-hour nightly documentary in which the audience is provided with edited highlights of the gradual deterioration and death of the subject.
Katherine Mortenhoe is to be filmed by Roddie, NTV’s star reporter, who has made his own sacrifice to become even more relevant and useful in a televisual age; he has had his eyes replaced with cameras. Having secretly watched her when she was diagnosed with her – fanciful – terminal illness, Roddie is certain there is going to be more to Katherine Mortenhoe than a pitiful victim slowly dying in front of an eager audience; Roddie is eager to follow Katherine and discover the woman who will persist, despite the pain and suffering, over her last few days, the real person who continues to exist even through the horror of illness and death.
Roddie and Katherine become closer than either would have imagined as Roddie chases the continuous Katherine Mortenhoe, who has accepted her ultimate fate in death but refuses to accept her fate as surrogate for suffering and pain.
The narrative takes an interesting tack in terms of point of view. Roddie’s point of view is told in first person; Katherine’s story is told in third person. The continuous Katherine is distanced, as if seen through the lens; Roddie, the voyeur, the surrogate viewer, is immediate and here. When the novel is in third person, other, minor actors sometimes become the viewpoint character, as if they are also now part of the dramatised and continuous Katherine Mortenhoe; and towards the end of the novel there is a sense that sometimes an omniscient narrator takes over, who can see everybody in, and knows everything about, the unfolding drama. These movements between types of viewpoint play with the notion of subject and audience, of watcher and watched, of voyeurism and gaze in an interesting way.
Both Katherine and Roddie are well-developed characters, and even the minor characters are filled out enough for us to understand their motivations; particularly Katherine’s husband and Roddie’s boss at NTV. I also found Compton’s writing style easy and enjoyable, with interesting turns of phrase.